IUP holds off Shepherd in Division II playoffs
On a day when defense was expected to be the focal point of the first-round NCAA Division II football playoff matchup featuring Indiana (Pa.) and Shepherd, host IUP found just enough offense to survive.
Thanks, in part, to its stellar defense.
“Our defense was outstanding,” IUP coach Curt Cignetti said after his third-seeded Crimson Hawks rallied from a three-point, third-quarter deficit to beat sixth-seeded Shepherd, 27-17, and move to the Super Region One semifinals at second-seeded New Haven.
“They're good. They're undefeated,” Cignetti said. “We'll give our guys a good Thanksgiving and then we'll get on the road. We get to play again.”
Cignetti is in just his second season at IUP, where his legendary coaching dad Frank Cignetti Sr. enjoyed the majority of his 199 victories. The elder Cignetti was known to relish playing other perennial powers such as New Haven as part of the team's nonconference schedule.
“Yes, I was at one of those games,” recalled Curt Cignetti, whose dad is IUP's all-time winningest coach and led the program to a 182-50-1 record from 1985 to 2005.
IUP entered the postseason as the Division II leader in total defense (242.7 ypg.), while Shepherd was first and IUP second in rushing defense. IUP outgained Shepherd by a modest margin (325-250), but both teams agreed the Crimson Hawks made more plays that mattered.
“You've got to make plays when you get to this level,” Shepherd coach Monte Cater said.
IUP running back De'Antwan Williams easily exceeded Shepherd's stingy average of 37.6 rushing yards per game, gaining 152 on 30 carries and picking up where injured Harlon Hill Award candidate Harvie Tuck left off.
Tuck continued to nurse a sprained ankle, sustained in a victory over Gannon on Nov. 3, though he contributed on Saturday and gained 60 yards rushing on 16 carries.
“We saw the best running ball club we've seen so far,” Cater said.
IUP rushed for 203 yards, by far the most against Shepherd this year. The Rams had yielded no more than 110 yards in a game to this point.
“We focused on the run. We went back to basics,” Cignetti said.
IUP (11-1) scored first on Mike Box's 5-yard touchdown pass to Terrill Barnes, giving the Crimson Hawks a 7-0 lead heading into the second quarter. That's when Shepherd (8-3) got off its heels and put a scare into IUP.
Quarterback Bobby Cooper's 18-yard touchdown run pulled the Rams even before IUP's Carl Fleming stepped in front of a Cooper pass and returned it 77 yards for a score and a 14-7 IUP lead.
“Our D-line had a great rush,” Fleming said, “and I just happened to make a play. I was in the right place at the right time. I stayed with my coverage and when I caught the ball, I didn't see anyone in front of me. I just ran as hard as I could for the end zone.”
It was a short-lived feeling for IUP. Cooper's 1-yard touchdown run on Shepherd's first possession of the second half knotted the score again, 14-14. Then, Ryan Earls booted a 42-yard field goal to give Shepherd momentum.
Box, who passed for 122 yards on 6 of 20 completions, keyed IUP's go-ahead drive on the next possession. He fired a 24-yard completion to Tyler Dummermuth, to advance the Crimson Hawks into Shepherd territory.
Eventually, Williams scored on a 5-yard touchdown run, giving IUP the lead for good, 21-17.
The IUP defense stuffed Shepherd the rest of the way, and Brett Ullman kicked a pair of fourth-quarter field goals to cement the victory.
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5617.